Music in Greek Life

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Music in Greek Life

Integrated into Every Part of Society.

Music was undeniably prevalent in all parts of Greek society. It was featured prominently in weddings, funerals, and other social events, during military campaigns, and most notably during festivals. Music was appropriate for all situations, whether they were family or community events. Once a musical performance had begun, it was common for neighbors, friends, and even strangers passing by to take part in some of the activities that included music. Music was also the central entertainment at symposia, private drinking parties held after dinner in the men's area of the house. Almost all types of these musical events have been preserved, either in the artwork or literature that has survived from the era, giving clues to modern scholars about the scope of music in Greek life.

Epic Poetry.

One of the earliest examples of music being performed in public was when it accompanied the performance of epic poetry. The eighth-century b.c.e. Homeric epics Iliad and Odyssey are the earliest written examples of myths performed in poetic form; they represent a tradition reaching back at least to the second millennium b.c.e. Originally sung to the accompaniment of the phorminx (lyre), the Homeric epic was composed in stichic form, meaning that many lines were repeated in the same meter. In the case of Homeric epic, this meter was dactylic hexameter, which consisted of a combination of the dactyl (–⋃ ⋃) and spondee (––). The melody was simple and conservative. In antiquity the transmission of epic poetry was accomplished through oral rather than written means; the poet trained his pupil, and they traveled from city to city, singing in music competitions and at the homes of patrons, always tailoring their performance to their audience.

Performance of Epic Poetry.

The epics themselves include many references to their own performance style: Demodokos and Phemios, two aoidoi (professional bards), sing and play selections of epic poetry before large audiences at banquets in the royal courts of kings Odysseus and Nestor. In the Odyssey Book Two, Odysseus' son Telemachus praises Phemios for delivering the "newest song to circulate." Amateur musicians would also attempt a few lines of epic, as the poem illustrates: the Achaean warrior Achilles, on a break from battle, plays his phorminx and sings "the glorious deeds of fighting heroes" for his friend Patroclus in Book Nine of the Iliad. From the sixth century forward, epic poetry was performed by rhapsodes, professional bards who recited selections of Homeric poetry at music competitions during religious celebrations, such as the Epidaurus festival of Asclepius, the god of healing who appeared as a mortal doctor in the Iliad. In Athens, during the Great Panathenaea held every four years in honor of Athena, groups of rhapsodes were organized to perform the complete Iliad and Odyssey.

Music in the Military.

Another early use for music was its necessity on the battlefield. The aulete (piper) was an essential timekeeper for rowers on Greek warships and for soldiers on the march. Bards and musicians entertained sailors and infantrymen while on campaign, keeping their spirits up. Marching songs were played on the salpinx ("trumpet"), which was also used to signal and direct troop movement in battle. The paean was sung during battle to rally troops, as the playwright Aeschylus wrote in his tragedy The Persians: "O Children of Greece, come! Free the fatherland, free your children, your wives, the shrines of your ancestral gods, the tombs of your ancestors! Now the struggle is for all!" The Spartans, noted for their military prowess, used several different types of marching song and rhythms which, according to Plutarch in his Instituta Laconica, made the soldiers brave and fearless of death. The seventh-century b.c.e. poet Tyrtaeus used one of the marching meters known as the embateria when he urged the Spartan troops to march on, shield and spear in hand, with no thought for their lives, sparing no one.

Epinikian Poetry.

Athletic contests were held every four years during the Olympian, Pythian (at Delphi), Nemean, and Isthmian Funeral Games, during which music was often heard and was often used as a prize of sorts. Modern Olympic games descended from such celebratory festivals, which featured many of the same events, including boxing, running, wrestling, horse racing, and pentathlon. Athletes from all over Greece would participate, and the victor of a competition was rewarded with prizes. After the competition, a grand homecoming celebration was held for the winners, and an elaborate poem, known as the epinikion, would be composed and performed especially for the individual. The poet, who was paid handsomely, extolled the victor and his family, and contextualized his accomplishment by comparing his effort to the struggle of a mythic hero or god. The poem could be performed again on the anniversary of a victory. Epinikia were composed for choral performance and, as the poems themselves reflect, were enhanced with dance accompanied by the phorminx (lyre) or aulos (reed). The best-preserved epinikian poems of the late sixth–early fifth centuries b.c.e. are those of Pindar, from Boeotia. Four books of Pindar's epinikia—one for each of the major Games—survive; many can be assigned to specific festivals and victors. Pindar's first Pythian Ode was composed for a certain Hieron of Aetna, winner of the chariot race in 470 b.c.e. Pindar also wrote poems for war heroes and musicians; his twelfth Pythian Ode, written for Midas of Acragas on the occasion of back-to-back victories on the aulos, contains a reference to the invention of a "many-headed" melody for the aulos by the goddess Athena. Pindar was well respected in antiquity for his brilliant use of imagery and metaphor, lyric meter, and musicality. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a first-century b.c.e. theorist, praised Pindar's "archaic and austere" beauty, and the range of his modal systems.



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Public Festivals.

Much like the Olympics, music was used in numerous other festivals, and many festivals had musical competitions that replaced the athletic competitions that were familiar to Olympians. The earliest evidence that music was part of public festivals in Greek life comes from the Bronze-Age settlement of Ayia Triada on the island of Crete (c. 1490 b.c.e.); a fresco and a stone sarcophagus depict musicians playing the phorminx and the aulos during a procession and a ritual sacrifice. Public festivals in honor of the gods filled the Greek calendar, and each region of Greece had its own particular ceremonial traditions; these came at yearly or longer intervals, and could last from one to seven days. Choral and solo songs, dance, and poetry were central parts of all festival events. The three main features of public religious festivals were the procession, the animal sacrifice, and the feast. The prosodion ("processional hymn") was sung to the accompaniment of the aulos while people paraded to altars and temples; when they arrived at their destination, the prosodion was sung to the kithara (type of lyre). Larger, more important celebrations, such as the City Dionysia and the Great Panathenaea at Athens, the Pythian festival at Delphi, and the Karneia at Sparta, included dramatic, poetic, and/or musical competitions.

Choral Song.

The festival procession generally included the dithyramb, a male choral dance with musical accompaniment, hymnoi ("hymns"), and the paean (a song of exhortation sung and shouted by men and boys in unison). Originally associated with the ecstatic worship of Dionysus, the god of "altered consciousness," the dithyramb was passionate and tumultuous, a revelry that celebrated masculine sexual power and fecundity. The seventh-century b.c.e. poet Archilochus proclaimed that he knew how to lead the dithyramb, the beautiful song of lord Dionysus, when infused with wine. Later, the dithyramb became institutionalized, and the City Dionysia in Athens featured organized performances by close to two dozen dithyrambic choruses of fifty men and boys each; dressed in costume, often crowned with ivy, they sang and danced under the direction of the khoregos (teacher, or leader of the chorus) to the accompaniment of the aulos. The names of a number of khoregoi (dithyrambic poets) and auletes (double-reed players) were inscribed on monuments. Pindar, Simonides, and Bacchylides, poets of the early fifth century b.c.e., were famous composers of dithyrambic choral song; the historian Herodotus named Arion as the person who first categorized the dithyrambs in Corinth, and after the fifth century b.c.e., Timotheus of Miletus and Philoxenus were credited with adding more complex rhythms and melodies to the dithyramb through modulation and modification of the aulos.


Often during the beginning and end of festivals, hymnoi were sung as a sign of thanks for prosperity. Hymnoi ("hymns") were songs of praise to gods. These could be brief accolades to gods during a procession or short introductions to paeans or epic poems. Hymns were composed by the lyric poets Archilochus, Alcaeus, Sappho, Pindar, and Bacchylides in the sixth–fifth centuries b.c.e., but the earliest hymns were part of an oral tradition. The Homeric Hymns—so named because they were composed in the same meter, dactylic hexameter, as the epic poems of Homer—were a literary genre performed by professional bards during a religious festival. These were long, elaborate, and detailed biographies of divinities that explained the particular god's origin, sphere of influence in society, and sites of worship. Thirty-three are preserved. The Homeric Hymn to Hermes includes a description of how the god invented the first lyre out of a chelys ("tortoise shell"). Aphrodite's Hymn relates how the goddess fell in love with the mortal hero Anchises, and bore his son—the Trojan prince Aeneas—whose descendents would later found Rome. One of the longest and most elaborate of the Homeric Hymns is the Hymn to Demeter, the goddess of grain and agriculture. Her hymn describes how Demeter's daughter, Kore, came to be known as Persephone, the wife of Hades, god of the Underworld; the story in the hymn contains many symbols and cryptic references to the popular mystery cult of Demeter, which was held in a large sanctuary in the town of Eleusis, near Athens.

The Paean.

The paean, a versatile form of song that could be sung on a variety of public and private occasions, was especially important during the festivals of the gods Apollo and Artemis, twin children of Leto. Many paeans were composed by musicians and poets to honor Apollo as the Oracle of Delphi. Two were inscribed on the wall of the Treasury of the Athenians at Delphi, complete with musical notation. Dating to the second century b.c.e., the 33 preserved lines of the first paean praise the glory of Apollo with sacrifice and music of the kithara (lyre) and the lotus (a type of reed pipe), and relates the myth of how Apollo became the prophet of Delphi by slaying Python, the serpent who guarded the prophetic tripod. Paeans also served as a holy song performed by soloists or choruses during the Panathenaea, a great festival of Athena held every four years in Athens; the Hyakinthia at Sparta; and other festivals honoring the major divinities. They could also function as a prayer of deliverance or thanksgiving.

Girls' Choral Songs.

Men were not the only ones to perform at festivals. Girls received training in choral music and dance from a young age; before the seventh century b.c.e., this was the only "formal" education open to girls. From the fifth century onwards, vase-paintings show women teaching girls to dance or play an instrument. Many vase-paintings depict girls and young women dressed in long, modest costumes, holding hands while dancing together in a line or a circle. Choruses of girls and women performed at family occasions such as weddings, but were also a feature of public festivals. Many famous poets, including Pindar, Simonides, and Bacchylides, composed partheneia ("maiden's choral dances") for public performance. In one of the best preserved of the partheneia, composed by seventh-century b.c.e. Spartan poet Alcman, two girls are singled out as the most charming and lovely leaders of ten girls dancing to honor the Dawn Goddess. Choruses of young women joined men in singing paeans and dancing on the Acropolis all night at the beginning of the Panathenaea. At Thebes, girls danced at night during the worship of the Mother of the Gods.

Music Competitions.

Four major Funeral Games—multi-day festivals held to commemorate a region's ancestral king—provided opportunities for athletes as well as musicians to compete for prizes. From the end of the eighth century b.c.e. musicians arrived from all over the Mediterranean to participate in festival contests. Instrumental competitions were instituted in the first quarter of the sixth century; competitors included instrumentalists on the concert lyre (kitharists) and the double-reed pipe (auletes); poets, who performed to accompaniment (kitharodes and aulodes); and the rhapsode, a professional bard who performed selections from the Iliad, the Odyssey, and other epic poetry, introduced by a hymn. Vase-paintings depict these competitors standing on a small stage before a judge.



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The Victors.

In his poem Works and Days, Hesiod, a shepherd-poet roughly contemporary with Homer (c. 700 b.c.e.), described how he won a tripod with handles, which he dedicated to the Muses, for his performance of a hymn at the Games of Amphidamas in Chalcis (654–652 b.c.e.). The names of many winners are known, some of them women: a kitharode named Polygnota of Thebes won a crown and 500 drachmas for her performance during the Pythian Games, according to a second-century b.c.e. inscription from Delphi. Two among the male victors stand out: Terpander of Lesbos and Timotheus of Miletos. Terpander was a celebrated musician of the early Archaic Period (seventh century b.c.e.), and was maligned in a comedy by Phercrates for singing too many notes. It is said that while Terpander increased the number of strings on the kithara to seven, Timotheus added four more; an anecdote relates that Timotheus was exiled from Sparta for using too many strings on his kithara during the music competition at the Karnean Festival there.

Greek Theater.

The festival of the Great Dionysia, held in Athens in March, was the most important dramatic competition in Greece. Instituted in the mid-sixth century b.c.e. by Peisistratus, the festival lasted five days and featured three tragedies, three satyr plays, five comedies, and two dithyrambs. The Dionysia honored the god Dionysus as Eleutherios ("The Liberator"), and the plays were performed in the large, open-air theater dedicated to the god at the foot of the Acropolis. Here, tragedians, of whom the most famous are Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and comic play-wrights—Aristophanes is the best known—produced their spectacular and timeless productions before thousands of spectators; adaptations and revivals of these plays continue to be staged today. The tragedies were serious re-enactments of well-known myths, such as the murder of Agamemnon, commander of the Achaean forces at Troy, by his deceitful wife Clytemnestra, or the downfall of the Theban hero Oedipus, who unwittingly killed his father and married his mother. The playwright was free, within reason, to interpret these myths through plot and action, which combined spoken dialogue between two to three actors, and choral song. All the parts were played by men or boys. The earliest surviving tragedy, produced by Aeschylus in 472 b.c.e., is unique in not drawing its plot from a myth; it treats an historical event: the bloody sea battle that had occurred at Salamis only eight years before between the Greek and Persian fleets.

The Chorus.

The most important musical element of Greek tragedy and comedy was the chorus. Aristotle, in the Poetics, states that tragedy evolved from the dithyramb, the young men's choral dance originally performed in honor of Dionysus. He adds that the tragic chorus employed melody, rhythm, and meter in combinations composed by the tragedian, who also choreographed and trained the chorus. Each playwright entering the competition was assigned a chorus of twelve to fifteen teenage boys, and a khoregos ("chorus-leader"). The boys were citizens of Athens, until the fourth century b.c.e., when professional singer-dancers were chosen. Aristotle explained that choral performance consisted of three basic parts: the parados (entrance song); the stasimon, sung while standing in the orchestra (literally "dancing place"); and the kommos, an antiphonal lament exchanged between the chorus and the actors. Musical accompaniment was provided by an aulete, a player of the double-reed pipe. In the classical period (480–323 b.c.e.), the chorus was assigned a character role; they played the part of elder statesmen, old men, slave-women, sailors, even supernatural beings, and shared in the action of the plot. Their function was to provide background for the story, interpret the action of the plot for the audience, and provide a moralizing element. Like the actors, the choral members wore masks, and their musical performance was enhanced by the use of dance and gesture.

Music in Comedy.

In the fifth century b.c.e. "Old Comedy" of Aristophanes, the chorus was 24 in number—twice the size of the tragic chorus. The group played the part of humans, but also birds, frogs, clouds, and other whimsical characters whose primary purpose was to entertain. Vase-painters illustrated the fantastic costumes of these choruses. Contemporary popular music, such as love songs, were part of the repertory, sung and danced to the accompaniment of the aulete. Several of Aristophanes' comedies featured a parabasis, during which the chorus would step forward and address the audience directly, speaking on behalf of the playwright. A musical celebration, often comic, marked the end of many comedies. Aristophanes' play Wasps ended with a type of ribald can-can danced by men, called the kordax. In his last surviving comedies, produced at the beginning of the fourth century, the role of the chorus was reduced. The poetry of the choral odes apparently were no longer written by the poet and included in the text; the word KHOROU ("Choral Song") was simply written in near the end of the play or between acts to indicate the performance of a song that was not necessarily connected with the story of the play. Aristotle referred negatively to the use of such interludes, which he called embolima. In the "New Comedy" of the fourth century—of which only one entire play, Menander's Dyskolos, survives—no choral odes were written; instead, the word "KHOROU" occurs between the acts. The play itself, like the tragedies and comedies before it, does refer to music and the performances of the aulete, which confirms that music was always part of Greek theater in one form or another.

Musical Innovations of the Playwrights.

Thanks to a comedy by Aristophanes called Frogs, it is possible to know a bit about how the poetry and music of the great tragedians of the fifth century b.c.e. was perceived by other artists. In the late fifth century, when Frogs was produced, the great playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were all deceased; in the play, the god Dionysus goes to the Underworld to fetch the best of the three back to earth. A contest is arranged, during which Aeschylus and Euripides ridicule each other's language, meter, and music. Euripides labels Aeschylus as repetitive and monotonous, while Aeschylus charges Euripides with employing the base songs of prostitutes, foreign music, laments, and dance-hall music. Aeschylus boasts that his musical style fits his lofty, heroic subject matter; Euripides brags that his realism makes the audience think. In the end of the play, Aeschylus wins the contest, but leaves his Underworld throne to Sophocles, whom Aristophanes chose not to mock (perhaps because he had only just died). In his comedy Peace, Aristophanes praised the songs of Sophocles, which contained a variety of modes and more complex rhythms than those of Aeschylus.



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The "Modern" Playwrights.

The most innovative poets of the classical tragedians were Euripides and Agathon. The music of Euripides was so popular abroad that it was said to have saved the lives of some Athenian sailors and prisoners of war: Plutarch related that when the Athenian forces were defeated at Syracuse by the Sicilians, their captors freed anyone who could sing any songs of Euripides. Unlike their predecessors, Euripides and Agathon employed the chromatic genus of scale, which resulted in more notes and a wider range. Although other playwrights sometimes used women's ritual laments in their choral odes, no one made better use of this genre of song than Euripides. Almost every one of his plays contains a lament, considered to be one of the most powerful and effective of the performance genres. It is telling that of all the music composed by the major playwrights, only Euripides' survives, on two scraps of papyrus dating from the early third century

b.c.e. The first comes from his play Orestes, originally produced at the Great Dionysia in 408 b.c.e., and the second from Iphigenia at Aulis. Despite the fragmentary condition of the examples, it is possible to recognize Euripides' style: the use of chromatic lines, alteration of poetic meter, and reduplication of syllables. Agathon, the youngest of the playwrights, won his first competition in 416 b.c.e. when Euripides was sixty; he is credited with introducing new dithyrambic modes and the performance choral music that was not connected to the subject of the tragedy. The music of both Agathon and Euripides was influenced by "modern" tendencies toward multiple notes, complex scales, and modulation, their melodic complexity described as anatretos ("bored-through like an ant-hill"). The choral poet Melanippides of Melos, writing at the end of the fifth century, was considered a pioneer of "modern" music in his use of many-noted anabolai, instrumental preludes to a dithyrambic performance. By the fourth century, the embolima ("interlude") replaced the traditional choral ode in tragedy, as it did in comedy. The tragedian would no longer write his own choral odes as an integral part of the plot and action.


introduction: One of the most famous of a group of musical fragments found written on mummy papyri is the so-called Vienna G 2315, which contains seven lines of a choral ode from the tragedy Orestes by Euripides. The myth of Orestes—the Argive prince who murdered his mother Clytemnestra to avenge the death of his father, King Agamemnon, whom Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus had killed—belonged to the Homeric tradition and was re-told in several tragedies. The surviving fragment captures lines 338–344 of an ode sung by the chorus in the role of Argive maidens, who have seen Orestes, covered in his mother' s blood, driven mad by the Furies, divine avengers of matricide. The chorus describes the horror of the murder and its aftermath. If this piece represents the actual music composed by Euripides over 100 years prior to the date of the papyrus (still an open question), it is among the earliest authentic examples of ancient Greek music. The center lines of text only are preserved; both vocal and instrumental notation are present, as well as rhythmic and time signs that reveal an expressive dochmiac beat (⋃⋃⋃–⋃–). The notes indicate the enharmonic or chromatic Lydian scale, mixed with one diatonic. If this fragment does not represent the actual music of Euripides, it is very much in his style: ancient writers remarked on Euripides' use of the chromatic genera of scale, his varied textual rhythms, reduplication of syllables, and repetition of words for emotional effect, all of which are present in the fragment.

Competitions after the Classical Period.

Agathon was, for all points and purposes, the last of the great classical tragedians. From the fourth century forward, solo arias and "star performances" became the most popular, and the tragodos, a virtuoso performer, would sing and mime new material or selections from the great tragedies of the fifth century to instrumental accompaniment. Musical compositions were now being written down for professional use, and a few texts have survived (two of them being perhaps the fragments of Euripides mentioned above). More musical competitions were added to existing festivals, and the number of festivals increased, as inscriptions attest. In 279 b.c.e. a new festival called the Soteria was established at Delphi, in gratitude to Apollo "The Savior" for his divine help in defeating the Galatians, who had attacked Apollo's sanctuary there. Royal festivals were now held in Macedonia, northern Greece, and Alexandria, in Egypt. Professional guilds, established at the beginning of the fourth century b.c.e., were now sending their musicians, poets, and actors from all over Greece to these competitions. The rise of the virtuoso singer and instrumentalist was alarming to more than a few people. In the Republic and the Laws, Plato argued that the sound of complex rhythms and melodies are harmful to the soul, in the way that "new" musical styles over the years like jazz, rock, and most recently, hip-hop and rap music have been considered a threat to social harmony and stability. Plato and other writers complained that music with "too many notes" was vulgar and/or womanish.


While music was often used at very large social events, it was also used for smaller, personal purposes as well. A popular subject for painters, poets, and playwrights, the wedding was a time for paeans, choral song and dance, women's ululation, and music of the lyre and the pipe. The wedding procession of the bride to the groom's house was an occasion for grand merrymaking. One of the earliest descriptions of a wedding march appears as a scene on Achilles' new shield in Iliad Book Eighteen; the bride is carried on a mule-drawn wagon through the town by torchlight while young men whirl and dance to the aulos and the phorminx, and the hymenaeum ("wedding song") rings loud. The hymenaeum was sung during the wedding proper; it was strophic, and often contained a refrain calling upon the god of marriage: "Hymen, Hymenaie!" The song wished the couple harmony, prosperity, and love. Another wedding song, the epithalamion, was performed by a group of unmarried men and women at the door of the wedding chamber. This bittersweet song signaled the transition from child to adult, virgin to married person. Some of the same themes and metaphors featured in the epithalamion—marriage as a journey, the danger of separation from parents—also appeared in funerary laments. In one of her many poignant wedding songs, Sappho of Lesbos wrote a dialogue between the bride and her virginity:

Bride: Maidenhood, maidenhood, where have you gone and left me?

Maidenhood: No more will I come back to you, no more will I come back.



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Funerary scenes depicted on vases from the ninth century b.c.e. forward indicate that large, public funerals were expected for important people, and music was an important element. For nine days mourning took place privately, in the house, but on the tenth day the public burial would occur. Whenever the body was conveyed to or from the house, the mourners followed the bier, displaying their grief by weeping, tearing their hair, scratching their faces, and rending their clothes. The most important public funeral rite was the lament, performed over the body by kinswomen and professional mourners. The two terms commonly used in literary texts for "ritual lament"—threnos and goos—both represented vocalizations that combined inarticulate cries with swaying movements and antiphonal poetic song, often described in tragedy and poetry as "un-lyred" and "un-danced" hymns, in reference to their sobriety. Vase-paintings show auletes performing at funerals, and later writers such as Josephus and Cicero refer to the hiring of up to ten professional auletes for large funerals. The goos may have been a more private, informal and extempore lament. In Homeric epic the word threnos was used for the formal laments by goddesses for dead heroes; it could also refer to the lament of professional mourners. In Athenian tragedy, the threnos was delivered during the kommos, an antiphonal song of lament between the actors and the chorus. The earliest literary lament occurs


introduction: A grave stele (tombstone) dating to the second century c.e. was unearthed in Tralleis, Turkey, during the building of a railway sometime in the late 1800s. The artifact was first published by Sir William Ramsay in 1883, but the public was largely unaware of the object until it was purchased by the National Museum in Copenhagen, and made public in a 1967 lecture by J. Raasted. It is now on display in the National Museum in Copenhagen. The column is inscribed with thirteen lines of Greek text, including an epitaph and an epigram with musical notation. After the little song, the owner signed his name "Seikilos, Son of Euter." The last line, "He lives," may indicate that Seikilos made the monument during his lifetime. Musical notation, in the diatonic Iastian tonos (scale) according to the tables of Alypius, is inscribed over the words to the epigram: one note for each syllable, with the exception of a few words that carry a short melisma of two or three notes over a syllable. The meter of the song is iambic dimeter, and rhythmical marks present above the vocal notation clarify the duration of notes. The well-balanced melody confirms patterns of composition described later by theorists Cleonides and Aristides Quintilianus.

in Book Twenty-Four of the Iliad, when the Trojan prince Hector is mourned by three kinswomen: his mother Hecuba, wife Andromache, and sister-in-law Helen. No music or dancing is indicated, but the poetry of the laments is very powerful in using the discourse of grief to praise and to blame. So effective were laments in raising the level of emotion in the crowd that the sixth-century b.c.e. Athenian lawgiver Solon banned women's public performance of the threnos, and many fifth-century b.c.e. texts indicate that the practice of women's laments was perceived as politically threatening. Plato was adamantly opposed to women's public laments, calling them irrational feminine expressions of grief; in the Laws, he states that the ideal lawgiver would prohibit public outcries at funeral processions. In later periods, an epigram—a simple, often plaintive or melancholy verse—might be inscribed on the tombstone. The only surviving funerary epigram with musical notation was found inscribed on the grave monument of a certain Seikilos, dating to the first century c.e.

The Symposium.

The symposion (literally a "drinking together") was an important social gathering for Athenian aristocrats from the fifth century b.c.e. forward. The party took place in the men's quarter of a private home; the wife and children remained upstairs. The guests, reclining on couches, ate, drank diluted wine out of large cups, conversed about silly or even serious matters, played games, and caroused. The entertainment was often provided by professional actors or singers and hetairai, high-class prostitutes who could sing, dance, and play the aulos. The guests themselves might play the lyre and sing their own renditions of well-studied lyric and elegiac poets of a century before: Alcaeus, Anacron, Stesichorus, Archilochus, and Theognis, to name but a few. Skolia ("drinking songs") were satirical ditties, freely constructed, sung under the influence of wine by any guest who was handed a myrtle branch in turn. The skolia of the poet Anacreon were quite popular; he was considered one of the best of the Ionian (East-Greek) poets of the late sixth century. Athenaeus, in his Deipnosophistae (second–third century c.e.), listed 25 skolia and discussed their style. The symposium was a popular subject for vase-painters, who filled their scenes with fantasy mixed with reality. In his Symposium, Plato staged a philosophic dialogue during a drinking party. In an unlikely scenario, the characters decided not to drink wine to excess and to let the piper go home so that they could have a serious philosophical discussion on the "Nature of Love." It might have been a boring night, had Socrates' friend Alcibiades not crashed the party and brought some raucous merriment to the evening.


Thomas J. Mathiesen, Apollo's Lyre: Greek Music and Music Theory in Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999).

A. Pickard-Cambridge, Dithyramb, Tragedy and Comedy. Rev. T. B. L. Webster. 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962).

—, Dramatic Festivals of Athens. Rev. John Gould and D. M. Lewis. 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968).

Martin West, Ancient Greek Music (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994).

Women's Life in Greece and Rome: A Source Book in Translation. Ed. and trans. Mary Lefkowitz and Maureen Fant. 2nd ed. (Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992).